Rolling with the Presidents

It was one of those evenings too beautiful for crazy.  The sun sank golden in cloudless skies west, blasting a silver-blue embankment of rainclouds high-cruising the Sandias.   Mara, a single mother of 4-year old twins, agreed to ride the 198 with me up Central Ave to the end of the line.  “Be aware, I attract crazy.”  Confirmed, but not today.  On this eve peace reigned in the southwest stretches of Albuquerque. bus stops-0631

We waited some ten minutes at the bus stop in front of the Downtown Inn.  Gilbert, the transit officer, decompressed the air pump as he slowed to a halt, dropping the door step down to the curb for our boarding convenience, and then greeted us with a smile as big as Bernalillo.  Few people were on the bus, for we missed the evening rush for a late-arriving babysitter.  But there is rarely no one to meet on the land barge. Mara and I got to talking right away.

Ron was coming home from his state job in Santa Fe.  Every day he busses it downtown, grabs the Rail Runner, and relaxes as the world glides by before laboring away at administrative duties in the Capital.  He owns a car, but why drive a personal land ship 120 miles each day when for less money you can rest your eyes from the road and read a book? bus stops-0640

Andrew agrees in his humdrum way.  He also has a personal vehicle, a small white Chevy pick-up truck, which he proudly showed pictures of from this cell phone.  But his truck is in the shop (way too far from his home on the West Side to make sense), and he was now riding home from visiting the pretty little wreck.  He carries an “honored citizen” card around his neck, which the Albuquerque Transit Department offers to senior citizens and disabled persons, discounting their fares to 35 cents per ride.  At 98th Street he pains to straighten his cramping back and lift his twisted leg. He limps out of the bus, his tender soul straining to survive amidst those bones in agony. bus stops-0666

Remembering his smile, I was a unafraid to meet Gilbert the driver, and as things went, fear had no place anyway.  43 years on the planet, 13 years taking people where they need to go, five years to retire, maybe ten, a wife, but no children, a possibility, a minister at the New Beginnings Church, someday a pastor, a smile for any and all, a judgment on no one, an intervention from time to time, because the bus can be a gnarly entanglement of drunken egos at times, but mostly peace, mostly just good folks moving bumpity-bump across an ever-expanding mass of concrete, work, home, driving a human family, living a human life, Gilbert. He won my heart when, upon seeing a friend driving a Rapid Ride in the opposite direction, both drivers ran out to greet one another with a massive bear hug.  bus stops-0661

The plight of transit officers is more complicated.  The city wants to reduce the pay cap for drivers from $17.00/hour to $12.50, and the starting pay from $11.00/hour to just $8.50.   The drivers also complain of security.  It can be an outright dangerous job to cart around Burque’s bus riders, some of them none too friendly, others none too stable.  Meanwhile, the bus routes are expanding.  Each new bus stop bench costs $5,000.  Each new bus, about $800,000.  “You’re riding in a million dollar vehicle!” Gilbert laughs, sighing down at an odometer approaching a million miles.  Eleven million rides are registered each year.  The Albuquerque Transit Department almost breaks even, sometimes.  More people need to ride the bus, clearly, but the stigma of crazy and the lack of routes deters most people who can afford a car.  Lacking clientele, the City drops the ball, investment drops, Americans cling to their funny dream, and the world keeps hurdling towards a most uncertain future. bus stops-0686

The sun was kissing the horizon when we picked up Donald, a sophomore at Atrisco Heritage High School.  He says he likes the bus.  His whole family uses the bus regularly.  Perhaps his shirt betrays his innocence, but where else should one sport a cotton-t raving bling but on a city bus in Albuquerque?  We dropped him off at Walmart on Coors and Rio Bravo before making the full loop back to Central.  Night was falling.bus stops-0680

On the way home, a smelly tattooed man and a pretty young girl giggled their way to the back of the bus and discretely injected heroin into their veins, which we never would have noticed were it not for the sudden and somnambulant euphoria that dropped over the girl’s eyes.   But Mara was lost in conversation with a cheery 18-year old just graduated from high school, and I was chewing the fat with Terrance, who was riding across town to his girlfriend’s place.  Instead of wasting $150 a week filling up his F-250, he opts for “by far the cheapest and easiest way to move around this town.” bus stops-0705

We stepped off the bus at 14th Street and Central into the bizarrely cold May night.  No crazy.  The world must be ending, I thought.  Or maybe it is just beginning.

Endnote: Mara Bailar is also a blogger.  Check out her intrepid exploration of sex and sexuality at:  http://pleasurepath.wordpress.com/

The Life and Times of “Change Bro”

johnny thanks givingA paragraph is sometimes insufficient to honor a man, so herego.

Fourteen years ago, just having spent my last dollars on a Limousine Express from Juarez to Albuquerque, I sat down on a bus stop bench at sundown on Central and 12th Street, aimed uptown towards the university.  A creepy pimp with the countenance and charm of Eazy-E sat beside me and said, “boy, you look like you could do to make some money tonight.”

Boy, he was right.  I had not eaten a meal in two and half days. I was completely broke, but for a few small coins—some pesos, some dimes—in my back pocket.   But this homage is not for the pimp who kindly paid my first bus fare and offered me a job “partying with hot older women” (save this for another time).  It is, rather, a continuation of the last post, an ode to the straggly-haired, mouse-faced, and tenderest of hearts who was waiting for me just a few minutes later in front of the Frontier Restaurant at Central and Cornell: “Hey, you got any change, bro?”  I did, and since its pithy jingle only made me feel worse about my woeful pauperism, I gave it to him.

In those days, Johnny Romero slept and roamed in and around the campus of UNM.  He was among the group of squatters residing in the rafters at the Student Union Building, who were later expelled when the scandal blew up.  Then he was kicked off the university campus altogether—perhaps a dozen times, before the campus police realized they would have to monitor him constantly, lest he sneak back in to charm young change-toting students.

In the end, he surrendered campus, retreating strategically to the surrounding “student ghetto” south thereof.  The college students and other penniless ragtags typical of the area tended to love and care for the meek and mild homeless man.  He always asked for change, but never demanded or acted aggressively.  And it was never a problem if you had none to offer.  He would simply thank you and move on, or stand and chat for awhile, inquiring politely as to the welfare of your best friends or your far-off family.

He could be quite chivalrous, too.  A dear friend of mine, a Spanish woman named Alicia, was getting her master’s degree and lived in the student ghetto.  Her classes often got out late, and she would have to walk home alone through the dark streets south of campus.  Those were the days of the notorious “Ether Man” and the “Southside Rapist,” both of whom were active in the area.  Johnny, the unassuming peddler, walked her home from class nearly every night to make sure she was safe.  Not for change, but for simple, perhaps even thoughtless, consideration.

But if students and ragtags liked the hapless Johnny, a number of local business owners felt strongly otherwise, and they called on the institutions of the state to guarantee the constitutional protections of private property.  Within a few years, and after so many beatings and brief stints in jail for trespassing, Johnny abandoned the neighborhood.  Believing that an official court order made it illegal for him to set foot in 87106, he marched on, from zip code to zip code, knowing no other life than that of an endlessly wandering pan handler.  He moved to Nob Hill, and another “court order” banned him from those public spaces.  He moved on, then, to an alleyway near the corner of Girard and Indian School, and there lasted a few years.  But when a sympathetic businessman passed away, and his daughter inherited his failing enterprise, the state was called upon again to remove the stinky man and his wad of sleeping gear, to be ushered off somewhere new.

It was around that time, in 2010, that I decided to interview him in depth for the first time.  I had just gotten back from a good long trip to Brazil, and felt stunned by his appearance.  Johnny was getting old, physically speaking.  He is only 46 years old today, but a life on the streets has aged him twenty years beyond.  His youthfulness seemed to have disappeared, his wrinkles deeper and dirtier, his gate more bent and drawn, a sadness in his stare I had not seen before.  It was common for me not to see him for months at a time, and at once I realized that if he were to at some point die and pass on to other worlds, I might never know.  And please understand that in 2010, noticing his physical decrepitude for the first time, I feared he might actually be dying.  And so I found him, spent a few days with him, talking of his life, his whereabouts, and his goals.

It was noon on Thanks Giving day, and the year’s first snowfall lay in a fluffy thin layer over a blue tarp in a narrow alley.  Snores and grumpy moans rumbled underneath.   Johnny wanted to stay in bed, but I said no.  We had a free holiday feast on which to stuff ourselves at the nearby Mennonite Church, and with my own family being so far away, I was not going to miss it.  Begrudgingly, he sat up, brushed the snow out of his hair, and prepared himself to face a brand new day.  And alongside the kind Mennonites of Albuquerque, we filled ourselves with innumerous courses of hot steamy soul food.  It turned out to be a delightful day of grace.

Between chomps and chews, Johnny spoke of his life.  He had grown up in the East San Jose neighborhood, just south of what the hip now call “EDO.”  In the 1970s and 1980s it was a bloody battleground of gang rivalry and small time drug dealing.  Heroin had wiped out the remnants of the Chicano movement, as Hispanic youth fell to addiction and the extreme violence of an unregulated market.  Gangs fought for turf.  The San Jose gang split into various clicks and factions as its old-tier leadership crumbled under overdoses, eternal prison sentences, and combat with the also deteriorating gangs from Barelas, Martinez Town, Washington Heights, and Wells Park.  In the middle of all this, Johnny and his brother were high school drop-outs living at home with their mother.  She died when he was 24-years old, and the duo began selling marijuana out the back window in order to make the mortgage payments (Johnny never landed a legitimate job).

The brothers did not belong to the local gang, however, and they had not gotten “permission” to sell drugs in the neighborhood.  One day a gangbanger approached the back window pretending to be a customer, and then pulled out a gun.  It was a .22 Caliber pistol, and one of its little lead bullets remains lodged in Johnny’s left calf to this day.  He barely remembers the moment for the adrenalin that catapulted him across the yard and over the fence.  Horrified, he never went back to selling drugs.  He and his brother failed to make the mortgage payments, and the house went into foreclosure.  While his brother left and is now somewhere in Texas, presumably married and raising a family, Johnny has been living on the streets of Albuquerque ever since.

Each time I see him, I sigh something like relief.  He is still alive.  His frail ratty body hunches more each year, his face evermore deeply sunken, his aging skin draped over the contours of his skull and bones.  His nose is broken like a boxer’s.  His left pupil torn from its center by a shard of glass in a fight long ago. His hands black with smut, his hair an eternal catastrophe.  But he is alive.  He was built street tough.  “I haven’t gotten sick in twenty years,” he says.  I can hardly believe it.  I get sick all the time.

“Change Bro” and Morris

Johnny and MorrisJohnny “Change Bro” Romero and his trusty sidekick Morris are Albuquerque’s most loved and possibly most abused homeless people.  They both belong to the mushy half-rotten, half-flowering core of the city’s morbid and mysterious charm, its true essence. So many generations of young people around the University and surrounding neighborhoods have loved and cared for these two, while many others have assaulted them.  Local business owners have also loved and hated them, as they tend to attract the penniless bleeding hearts and scare away the monied middle classes unaccustomed to the smell of sweat and rot on a man.  The police have arrested them countless times, always for trespassing—that is, wherever they find a nook or cranny in which to sleep—and have on many occasions beaten them.  Other homeless people, particularly those with drug and alcohol addictions or more aggressive manifestations of mental illness, have beaten them and stolen their coins, clothes, and sleeping bags numerous times.  Johnny once had a stack of hand-written journals stolen and trashed while in jail.  He has not written since.  Just recently he qualified to receive $700.00 per month for disability.  ”They say I’m mentally ill,” he smirks somewhat angrily.  ”It’s not true, though.  I’m not mentally ill.”

Unlike Johnny, Morris clearly suffers from mental illness, but it is of the most docile and friendly kind.  Morris is a glowing orbit of love, tormented deeply though he may very well be.

“I met your mother on a city bus”

Forty-four years ago a smitten young neck tie salesmen awkwardly approached a cute blonde phone sales operator on the Gravois-Lindell bus in downtown St. Louis, Missouri.  The blushing girl chewed at her fingernail, yet the boy failed to notice the big diamond ring on her finger.  He dared ask if he could walk her home.  The girl’s fiancé was busy dropping napalm out of an F-4 Phantom ten thousand miles away, and since a little chivalry never hurt anyone, she accepted.  Eleven years later, on the very morning of the infamous Jonestown Massacre, a slap and scream rang out through the maternity ward at Barnes Hospital, and that was me.  Thirty-four years on, in this grand year of 2013, my loving parents rode the bus again, this time in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  They came to visit me for the first time since I graduated college—way long ago.  Why not show them a little of my world?

Bus Stops (mom and dad)-0535

Meanwhile, my world asked, “why not give them a little baptism of fire?”

Mayhem sprung loose at the corner of San Mateo and Central just as we parked the car.  A woman had overdosed on something, presumably heroin, and lay sick and screaming on the bus stop bench.  A rustled young police officer stood beside her, while variously compassionate or angry waiting passengers rushed to get the woman some water, or curse her for doing something stupid again.  I crouched down to ask her name.  I said something right, and she squeezed my hand, whimpering softly.  Then I said something wrong, and she lurched back and screamed like the banshee of my worst nightmares.

Bus Stops (mom and dad)-0511

Then the ambulance came, and I snapped my first photographs.  A woman whose back may or may not have been in one of the frames was not concerned either way.  But her impassioned husband evidently was:

“Did you ask my wife permission to take her picture?!” He berated me, beating a lopsided blue heart tattooed on his upper chest with his fist.

“Who is your wife?”

He pointed to a draping brown T-shirt and a mop of black hair amidst at least ten other people rushing about in the mayhem.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.

“Did you take her fucking picture without asking, motherfucker!?”

“Cut it out!” The young police officer thrust his mighty voice between us, after which I felt an immediate jolt of admiration and fear before the uniformed man.  My adversary must have felt it, too, for he bolted away into the crowd.  And it was right then that I remembered something from my ride-a-longs with the APD Gang Unit last year (see http://underabq.tumblr.com/): The chief of the Albuquerque Police Department had recently prohibited officers’ use of curse words while interacting with civilians, making it a punishable offence.  A number of officers were upset because they felt that using “fuck” appropriately, for example, was an effective de-escalation tool, without which the need for physical coercion would be more likely in certain situations.  In any case, my good officer today unleashed not one curse word, and yet still scared the fucking shit out of me!

In the meantime, since I hate to make people feel bad, I decided to seek out my angry friend to apologize for perhaps taking a photograph of his wife’s back.  It was, after all, unintentional, and I was perfectly willing to erase the photo if she appeared in it.

“That’s not the fucking point, you asshole! You’re a piece of fucking shit!”

At this time the police officer was twenty feet away and consumed in the chaos, and so it was just the angry man and me.   His cursing nipped my apology in the bud, and I began to feel a familiar wry smile creep across my face.  It was the sleeping giant of my man ego awakening.  A challenge! A duel! A ruthless battle to the bloody end!  Aggression, the essence of my primitive soul, was being taunted and teased into lashing out.  A euphoric catharsis, albeit a massive stupidity. My chest heaved to and fro, a visceral excitement.

As usual, however, the rational elements of my good citizen mind spoke louder.  And thank goodness, for after all, my beloved parents were just behind me, horrified that the angry man might pull out a knife and shank me.  But I needed more than rationality, for the angry man opted to pursue me as I tried to walk away.  I needed an intervention.  I needed Rob, the bearded schizophrenic miracle who sailed in with a stream of nonsense so passionate, and so incongruous, he could have disarmed North Korea.

Screen shot 2013-05-12 at 7.50.50 AM

“My grandfather he was a Nazi in Nazi Germany and I just don’t know why anyone would ever want to do that hell man what did the Jews ever do to him damn I told her you shouldn’t smoke that stuff no way man it’s gonna kill you someday you know it!!…” and on and on.

The Central 66 bus squealed to a halt, interrupting the blessed tirade.  When my parents and I stepped aboard, a nasty cursing came from the back of the bus.  The angry man and his wife had already boarded, and they were irate.  Seeing me enter, they flicked me some long fingers, yelled something none-too-friendly, and exited the bus indignant.  I suppose there wasn’t room for both our giant man egos.

Then the wry smile propelled by my ego broke under adrenalin diluted.  The bus jerked into motion, and I sat down all a nervous jitter, feeling so rattled by the chaos and confrontation.  My parents, too, looked about nervously, not wanting to say anything, but clearly uncomfortable about the course of events.  Looking for solace in a smile, any at all, I began talking to random people on the bus.

Sweet smile after sweet smile, heartfelt story after heartfelt story—some so tender, some so tragic—ever-so-slowly this brought my heart back to a proper beat.  One of the worst sensations, after all, is to feel hated, and of course I risk this every time I nose my questions and camera into a stranger’s life.  But one of the best feelings is to make a connection with a total stranger, share with him a smile, a handshake, a story, a momentary and mutual understanding that despite all our differences we are in essence all the same.  I love to capture these moments because this provides for me some sense of meaning, without which no pain can be justified, and no joy sustained.

Screen shot 2013-05-12 at 8.02.27 AM

On the way downtown and back we talked to several people.  Alex Xavier was heading back to his parents’ house off of 98th Street after an engineering class at CNM.  Eddie from El Paso and Magda from Burque met ten years ago, and ride the bus everyday to go to work, run errands, and go out for dinner.  Shen skipped stones in a puddle of water while waiting for the bus, and said it was so nice to visit his sister, as he often does on Friday afternoons.  Ryan had ridden his bicycle from Coors and I-40, grabbed the bus at 10th and Central, and was now on his way to work a 12-hour shift in the ICU at UNMH.  His wife stays home to take care of their three children, and—children are expensive. That’s why he is taking the bus.

Bus Stops (mom and dad)-0558

Meanwhile, Doris just left the hospital, accompanied by her two brothers and a cousin.  Her husband had beaten her to unconsciousness two days earlier.  Visibly shaken, the real men in the family swore revenge: “When he gets out of jail, we’re gonna do street justice.” They asked me to take pictures of Doris’ horrendous bruising “for evidence,” and then we exchanged contact information.

Bus Stops (mom and dad)-0568

In a flurry of tender handshakes and hugs, Doris and her brothers got off at Girard and Central, and on came none other than Jerobio, the toothless fun drunk from two posts ago.  “These are your parents?” he beamed, and then lectured my dad on the importance of being good to his woman, for woman is God’s gift from the Heavens, and she must always be loved and respected, lest we lose her and live a life alone with our misery.  Ask Jerobio, his wife is dead, his girlfriend in jail.  Or ask his abandoned daughter.  Such are the vagaries of love and vice.

Back at Central and San Mateo my parents and I stepped off the bus and into another golden New Mexico sunset.  Arm in arm, they strolled like teenage lovers across Route 66, all a glitter with shards of broken plastic and glass.  They had not been on a city bus in over three decades.  It felt like the anniversary of their love.

The Duke’s Sick Sister

Today I am not riding the bus.  A pile of ungraded student exams stared me into a corner until I was huddled, whimpering, and anti-social.  And so I thought best of it to sit still in my seat, let the billowing clouds whisper their sweet nothings through the open window and into my tickled ears, and reflect on the bloody, bittersweet, bus stop memories of the year 2010—in the heart of Albuquerque’s southern sister, Cuidad Juarez.

It was the height of Mexico’s drug violence.  Ten to fifteen corpses, mutilated or riddled with bullets, dumped in random places every day.  More than three thousand people were killed in Juarez that year as two Cartels and their gangboy hit men fought over the “plaza” through which billions of dollars worth of drugs are smuggled to reach addicts and bored youths all over the United States.  Jolted by the media reports of such a fiery massacre so close by, my friend Roberto and I decided to spend a few days there to see for ourselves what was happening.  For reasons I have long forgotten, we left our car in El Paso and took the city bus.

There are so many differences between the Duke and the Daisy, not least of which is the astronomical disparity of violence, but I shall limit myself here to a cursory exploration of public transit in Ciudad Juarez.  First, of course, the buses are different.  They are mostly second-hand school buses imported from somewhere in America, now painted pretty, adorned with protective saints and virgins, and in some cases decorated quite extravagantly on the inside. Secondly, they are often full of people, most of whom are travelling to or from work, and typically not drunk off their gourd.  Thirdly, there is commonly some young cowboy or poor old lady clanking away on a cheap guitar and singing so finely out-of-tune about Jesus Christ All-Mighty or the baddest drug boss on that side of the Rio Grande.

Juarez Bus Stops

The roads are also quite different, typically narrower and bumpier.  On the main causeways you might hear the screech of tires and glimpse a column of masked and heavily armed federal police officers or soldiers wailing by in pick-up trucks.  Smoke might rise from somewhere on the horizon, and it might just be some trash burning.  As you move away from the town center towards the poor suburban expanses and mountaintop slums, the roads at times will disappear altogether, but the bus will keep lumbering on.   The driver will wrench the wheels leftward, drop the clutch, and with a clunk and thud roll down into a potholed drainage ditch that seconds as a roadway—when it’s not raining, of course.  Swaying violently from left to right to avoid the pot holes, the bus will lurch and moan on just beneath half-broken or half built homes of cement block, emerging from time to time for a moment, just to sink back down.

Juarez Bus Stops-2

As the bus approaches the poorer, more desolate neighborhoods near the great mountainside white-stone message, “Lee la Bibia” (Read the Bible), it might squeal to a halt for a broken down car in the road, right in front of a “pharmacy”—or a drug house, where dealers and addicts make transactions out in the open.  When you not-so-discretely snap a photograph through the bus window, the other passengers might begin to hyperventilate.  They are afraid.  After the bus moves on—and the drug dealers having failed to notice the voyeurism—everyone might sigh with relief and curse the stupid gringos.

Juarez Bus Stops-3

At the top of holy mountain you can get off the bus at its last stop and walk up into the Tarahumara Indian colony, where you had best bring a present next time to show respect, lest there not be a next time!  But on a good day, you might just get to see a great and beautiful rarity: a Tarahumara women’s basketball tournament!

Juarez Bus Stops-5

Late in the afternoon, given the Earth still spins on its axis, you might see the sun sink and sky darken.  Burning tires will send smoke and stink from all around.  Children will be playing in the streets, laughing as they do.  Pops and flashes will glisten in the vast expanse beneath you, and you will longingly look over it all to America, sitting there so still and quiet on the opposite side of the Rio Grande Valley.  The day’s last bus might arrive just then, and you will take it, and pray for peace, both in your loving heart and out in the streets.

Juarez Bus Stops-4

As the sun says goodbye, you might be walking back across the border bridge where a few hours earlier a US border patrolman shot and killed a 15-year boy who tossed stones at him from the Mexican side of the Big River’s pithy stream.  Another teenager, who witnessed the slaughter from the bridge above, will be singing a corrido (story-telling folk song) about the tragic course of events. You will want to take a photograph to remember, for your mind and memory seem at times even more delicate than life itself.

Pocahontas and Kaylee Marie

Jerobio has not been home to see his children in two days, but he thinks he will probably make it tonight.  In the meantime, the sun is setting over a city gilded by its light, and the liquor store is calling.  We meet at the bus stop downtown just across from the train station, and we ride all the way to Coors Blvd for the store with the best deal on cheap beer.  His friend, Gregory, with a smile like a Kuala bear, departs at 8th and Marquette to see a bail bondsman.

Paula outing-0309

Today I’m traveling with my girlfriend Paula (at back with Jerobio), who happened to be born and raised in a Brazilian city near where I did much of my graduate research.  Today she is a nurse in the emergency room, and perhaps from that experience has become so comfortable around—and comforting to—those who have long abandoned their dreams to depravity and vice.  In any case, it is easy for me to move around to take pictures because Jerobio immediately falls into playful conversation with her, intermittently advising her, of course, on matters of life, love, and the complementary essence of man and woman.

Jerobio had been married to a Navajo woman named “Chuki” who he met near his hometown in Utah.  He had just come back from a tour in Afghanistan in 2006 when Chuki died in a drunk driving accident, and he says that at that point he began his total devotion to alcohol.  “Take care of your woman!” he implores with all seriousness, and then slips into toothless laughter over unrelated matters.

I ask about his experience in the military.  “I was a sniper, but I never killed no one, man…just picked at ‘em [pokes at his “non-vitals”].  I’m a Christian, man!”

I ask about his children.  He says they stay with their grandma, and that he makes sure that he never drinks in front of them.  That’s why he hangs downtown with the hobos.  Because of the nature of the binge, he often will not go home for days, sometimes a week, while he accumulates grime and stink in the scratches and wrinkles of his skin.  He especially loves his 13-year daughter: “She is like Pocahontas, man, a real princess!”  What does she think about her father not coming home for days? “I think deep in heart she understands.”

Paula and Jerobio continue laughing on about all the whatnots of life while I move about the bus in search of an interesting photographic angle.  Being that there are others on the bus, I can’t help but wiggle myself between them, bump into them, trip and fall into their laps—at which point I apologize profusely, and they ask in perfect kindness and curiosity what I am doing.

Paula outing-0313That is how I meet Jeff and Sierra, a sweet young couple from Bernalillo on their way back from Presbyterian Hospital where they travel by bus every day to visit their newborn baby in the ICU.  Their daughter was born with a hole in her heart one month and seven days ago, and must remain monitored 24/7 until she is ready to undergo surgery.  Her name is Kaylee Marie, the letters now tattooed on her father’s left forearm by his own right hand with black ink and a needle.  She will survive.

Paula outing-0320

Jeff and Sierra met for the first time at Wall Mart five years ago while still in high school.  The crush was immediate, love followed, and today they are engaged.  Jeff dropped out of school and is yet to get his GED.  Sierra graduated and went to NMSU for a while, but then came back.  They are obviously inching along a plain of high hurdles and real struggle, but it is hard to see it their faces, which retain a youthful tenderness like a first kiss under starry Spring skies.

In a sudden jolt the land barge halts at the Churches Chicken on Central Ave near Coors Blvd, and this is our hapless stop.  Jerobio goes off to his liquor store, Jeff and Sierra to their home in Bernalillo, and Paula and I to the bathroom smelling of fried chicken and industrial cleaning agent.  To the East is the slumping string of cement of Nine-mile-hill dumping into the now blossoming Rio Grande.  Beyond it, the slow stretch of city upward towards the hazy magnificence of the Sandia Mountains.  To the West, a New Mexico sunset in all its glory.  Right in front of us, Joseph, a 48-year old alcoholic just released from jail (again), where he was sent for drinking in public and trespassing.  His jail tag from the MDC is stuck to his wrist:

“You guys don’t by chance have a knife on you, do ya? They don’t cut ‘em off for you at the jail like they used to. And I don’t carry knives or guns..,” his timid voice goes comically ominous, “…because if I did, I’d use ‘em!”

Paula outing-0359

Just before we arrived, Joseph had gotten another ticket for public drinking at the next bus stop up, where simultaneously an ambulance was tending to a veteran who had cracked his skull open and was bleeding profusely.  The cops had told Joseph they wouldn’t give him a ticket if he could walk away.  A pithy little joke it was.  Joseph’s right ankle is swollen like an eggplant, and he can barely walk.  Somehow, though, he stumbled his way to the next bus stop anyway, plunked down, and opened another can of beer.

Paula busies herself in conversation with him while I snap some photos and admire the beauty of this grand city at sundown.  Joseph talks to her about his life, and how he ended up a bus stop drunk.  “I tried to join the army when I was twenty-three, but I’m too stupid.”

Paula outing-0339

“You’re not stupid!” Paula insists.

No response. He just keeps on as if she hadn’t a clue as to what she was talking about.  After the army fiasco he worked in “labor” on construction sites for a few years, but shortly thereafter succumbed to a life of drunkenness.  Everything since is only a blur, a constant in and out of jail for loitering, trespassing, public drinking, failures to appear in court, outstanding warrants, and whatever, always back to the same.  The perfect tragedy.  But whatever else has been lost in his life, what surely remains is his warmest of smiles, childlike in essence, pure and sweet.

Paula outing-0338

As night falls, Paula and I walk down Nine-mile hill all the way to 2nd Street and Gold, where we left her car.  We stop in for onion rings and wieners at the Dog House.  Ever since she saw it on an episode of Breaking Bad, she wanted to eat there.  It was delicious and nasty, just like you know.  And thus ends another day on the bus.

“I’m homeless, of course I have a cell phone!”

Central-Yale Stops-0254

Notorious to students living or parking near the University of New Mexico’s south campus, the bus stop on Yale Blvd near Central Avenue offers a daily ruckus of drunken riffraff for passersby to fear and avoid, stop and gawk at, or in rare cases, share a swig or splif with.  Like many other bus stops, the corner itself is in part just one of few viable congregation points for homeless people who without a “reason” to be there (i.e. “waiting for the bus”) would be quickly and perhaps violently ushered along by the police for being in violation of loitering statutes.  The other utility of the bus stop is, of course, public transportation, without which thousands of laborers, students, struggling parents, wayward teens, ex-convicts and vagabonds would be stranded in this poorly organized urban expanse called Albuquerque.

Central-Yale Stops-0239

“Brother, you can ask any question you like, but let me just ask you something first!,” exclaimed Two-Crow, a 33-year Navajo man from Colorado with dusty auburn hair hanging past his shoulders.

“But of course. Shoot!”

“How in the world did you get such a beautiful woman at your side?!”

Anais, a 19-year old UNM student, had asked to come along on one of my bus stop ventures.   As I expected, the dynamic of encounters was different than when I go alone, but I hadn’t foreseen the great advantage of being accompanied by a young, beautiful, and unassuming female.  Contrary to my previous solo outings, not one person accused me of being an undercover narcotics agent while Anais was with me.  Furthermore, everyone—no matter the degree of their intoxication—treated us with kindness and respect, a sort of street corner chivalry, if you will.  And to top it off, Anais carried herself so naturally, with such sincerity and confidence while asking questions, that she thoroughly won the hearts of all around.

“You’re guess is as good as mine!” I responded.

Central-Yale Stops-0296

Two Crow had come into Albuquerque only three days prior, and will be moving to other places to be homeless a few days from now.  Yet he has made friends quickly, illustrated by the multiple hugs and handshakes that befell him in our presence.  “When you are homeless, making friends and enemies happens really fast.  You get on someone’s good side if you have something that they want.”

A swig of seven-buck vodka or a hit from a joint can break the fragile but dangerous barriers between strangers on the street.  As in all social groups, reciprocity is the foundation of trust, and trust is one’s best guarantee of survival.  Ironically, the vehicle of this reciprocity on the streets—alcohol and drugs—is that which imprisons one to this very fate.  Two Crow is all too aware of this dynamic, and although he admits that systemic racism and oppression has in many ways helped to orient his path of depravation, he also takes full responsibility for the decisions he has made.  “Everything you do in life is a decision, brother.  Happiness is a decision. This,” he spreads his gangly arms wide, his gray overcoat sprawled like a mast, “is all a decision!”

Two Crow grew up in a small town in Colorado, and left his parents’ house for the streets at the age of twelve.  He says he did it out of spite for his mom.   In a fit of anger over his early teen drinking, she once pointed out to a drunken hobo lying in the gutter and screamed at her son, “Is that what you want to do with your life? Is that what you want to become?!”

“Yes, it is!” the little boy Two Crew had screamed back.  Twenty years later, reflecting on it, he says, “I wanted to piss off my Mom.  Turns out she didn’t really care what I became after all.”  A sincere chuckle followed, as if no resentment remained, not even regret, rather only a lighthearted—if fatalistic—acceptance of a fate long decided and sealed.

He went on to explain that when you have lived on the streets for so long, you no longer feel comfortable anywhere else.  Embracing two of his new friends, he expounded, “if you gave us money to sleep in a hotel room tonight, we would sit there awkwardly for while, and then be like, ‘let’s get out of here and go walk around,’ and then we’d be right back here.” The six others at the bus stop nodded in agreement as they took turns munching down a plate of Chinese food given to them by a worker at a nearby restaurant.

At various points in the conversation, Two Crow burst out in song, melodic poems of struggle, liberation, and redemption, or traditional tribal songs the meanings of which I could only intuit.  His eloquence was sweet and soothing.  His charisma embraced the entire world.  When an angry passerby yelled out, “Don’t let him [me] exploit us brown brothers!” Two Crow cooled things down in an instant, hugging the stranger, telling him, “It’s okay, brother, he’s good, he’s with us.”

central-yale-stops-0276.jpg

Now on the subject of race, which is inescapable when one opens his eyes—particularly when traversing the interstices of human social life—I asked Two Crow if  he identified with being Native American.  His answer was immediate, clear to the point, and profound:

“When I’m drinking, I’m an Indian.  When I’m sober, I’m Native American.” 

He was referring to the stereotypical “drunk indian” who betrays his noble past by surrendering to depravity and vice, and to the “stoic native” who remains in touch with the spirits of the universe, the masters of the earth and heavens.  He is both things, he is yin and he is yang, and that is the life he has chosen.

The darkening sky beckoned our departure, and so we soon said our goodbyes.  Hugs around the table.  Two Crow embraced me like a bear, “Brother, in a few days I will be thinking about you.  I hope you will remember me, too.”  He then offered his cell phone number in case we wanted to get in touch again, even though he was leaving in a few days.  Anais was confused, “you have a cell phone?”

“I’m homeless, of course I have a cell phone!”

The Runaway

central-yale-stops-02201.jpgdominic-02181.jpg

We met Dominic as we rustled around for change.  The frail and tiny boy of twenty years quietly—though not shyly—offered to pay the 35 cents for Anais’ bus fare, and then slipped off to sit by himself on the nearly empty land barge that is the Route 66 Central Avenue main line.  I told him about our project and asked if he wouldn’t mind a few questions and photos, all of which he accepted without much hint of either enthusiasm or apprehension.

He ran away from his parents home just a week ago, and has since been sleeping on the streets (note: more than a thousand runaways are reported as “missing persons” each month in Albuquerque—he is perhaps on that list, perhaps not).  He has no job or plans to get one, no shelter or plans to seek one, and no joy or pain seems to be at this point permitted into his mind, as if he were in a state of shock.  Time has temporarily stopped, and every moment has neither future nor past, every action neither meaning nor mission.  Or perhaps this is not true?  What compelled the quiet and forlorn boy to offer the only change he had to a pretty young girl whom he had no intentions of even flirting with?

His answers to my questions were invariably curt and calm, telling more by their manner than by their substance.  He was angry about his parents, but did not tell the story, only that he would never go back there.  Pressured into acknowledging the inevitability of time grinding its rusty gears once again, he offered that he never finished high school, but got his GED, and that at some point he would probably get a job.  In the meantime, he sleeps in a park, stores some extra clothes at a friend’s house, and dodges the police who variously ignore his condition or chase him like hounds.

“How do you make money? Where do you get food to eat?”  His answers are too soft to hear when the bus squeals to halt at Central and Yale.  It is our stop, and we say a friendly goodbye.  These bus stop stories are often so fugacious.

Image

Route 66 Central Ave.

Central-San Mateo-9238

The Route 66 main line bus runs the gamut of Central Avenue from East to West.  Here passengers exit and board at the corner of San Mateo Blvd, just across the street from the Bank of America building, where billionaire Bill Gates rented his very first office space.